Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the last 2 months, or woken up like Rip Van Winkle after a 20 year sleep, you will be (probably painfully) aware of the word COVID-19.
Our world has changed drastically to put it lightly. Who would have imagined no flights at all between the US and Europe, of oil being so cheap that it for a short time companies were paying others to store it for them (negative price!), of 1.3 billion people in 'lock-down' with all that it is meaning to our beloved country of India. Strange days to be sure.
Sheba and I have just completed 6 blessed months at the Asha Kiran Society in Lamtaput, Odisha. It is a joy to be part of this amazing team of doctors and nurses and community educators and farmer-friendly motivators and, and, and... We are based at a hospital with a big heart - with a group of amazing people who are living out their call - warts and all of course - with long-lasting fruit stemming from Asha Kiran 30 odd years of devoted work.
And the scenery... drop-dead gorgeous. A feast to the eye, and the ear too as the stillness is broken not with the ear-splitting sounds of the latest marriage DJ procession which was our Lalitpur staple, but with a medley of bird-song, and the rustle of the wind in bamboo outside our house.
Far, far away from everything we are, nestled on the South-western corner of Odisha, up in the tribal highlands. Surely, COVID-19 will not perturb us here?
Well, to put it lightly, we are all connected. Even in the remote villages where we have work with people who belong to the Bonda (a particularly vulnerable tribal group) we find that they have members who have gone to Kerala and Mumbai for work. The remotest corner of the world is linked through labour and remittances with the swirling maelstorm of modernity.
As the Odisha state government took the lead in announcing various levels of COVID-19 control measures, we realised that it was no longer 'business as usual.' All our village multilingual education centres were shut when the local schools were closed - but we are grateful that we had just managed to finish the first term evaluations. Reading the writing on the wall, our team sent out staff and volunteers to the 157 village hamlets that Asha Kiran has some work in with basic COVID-19 prevention messages.
The training for this was held out of door with physical distancing in place - and allowed us to cover all these villages before the Central Government announced the nation-wide lockdown from midnight 23rd of March!
At the same time, our Asha Kiran Hospital worked hard to develop a separate COVID-19 referral centre in the Asha Kiran Training Centre buildings. Amazingly, it was up and running within a week of the first planning session. Kudos to the team who developed systems, fenced off the area, set up a 25 bedded inpatient care centre and a cough OPD where patients with cough symptoms are first triaged to from the main hospital gate.
Personal protective equipment (PPEs)? Not available in local shops (we have 3). Not available by Amazon (no deliveries here during lock-down). Not available even in the big cities... and so our team started making our own. And masks too. Lots of them.
And yet, as time went on, we still did not have a single patient diagnosed with COVID-19 in our district. Yes, the numbers of people tested has been small, but surely with such a big disease taking place all over the world...
I found myself remembering Nevil Shute's melancholy book On the Beach which I had read in my teens. The book has people living in Australia in a post-nuclear-war-world in which everyone in the Northern Hemisphere has died. The characters are waiting for the radiation sickness to spread down to them and as the book proceeds you hear that more and more cities and town are 'out.' Needless to say the book does not have a happy ending.
And so I took to checking up on the covid19India site. Almost every night. Sometimes multiple times a day. Watching the numbers start to swell. Seeing Odisha get its first cases. But each time new cases were added to Odisha (there are 103 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state to date), I would check to see if they were from our district of Koraput. Each time they were from somewhere else.
But today that changed.
This afternoon the following whatsapp text arrived in my phone.
And in Sheba's phone too.
We have our first local case. A young nurse who has come back to Koraput from Kolkota.
Needless to say, health workers are at the forefront of caring - and also getting the disease.
This is of course precisely why we are here. To work with our communities to address their challenges. Be they the old-hat ones of poverty, malnutrition, TB etc., or the slightly newer ones of helping people with terminal illnesses and mental challenges, or the brand-new COVID-19 pandora's box of fear and loathing (combined with a very infectious disease which kills the most vulnerable).
The little red "+1" below marks Koraput's entry in the COVID-19 saga.
How many more people in our communities will get COVID-19? Will we be swamped with cases at the Asha Kiran Hospital? Will our on-going community outreaches see a slow trickle of suspect cases build up? What will happen to the particularly vulnerable tribal groups we serve?
We really, really don't know. We have tried to prepare for the worst... and are hoping and (literally) praying for the best. I would be the happiest person in the world if this first case in Koraput is the last one too.
But given that Prince Charles and Boris Johnson and various other high-profile folks were unable to stop themselves from getting the disease, I think that most probably a goodly number of other people will get it in our district as well.
And so we have the opportunity to care for them and share love and hope. To do to them as we would like others to do to us... and being health-care workers this possibility is real.
We don't know the future, but we know who holds the future. The COVID-19 situation all around the world has brought much suffering and confusion, but we also realise that it offers opportunities to live our lives the way they should be.
Can we be firmly in the present with our eyes fixed on an eternal future? Taking each day with gratitude and love and seeing all our tasks big and small (or small and smaller) as having value. Loving God and loving our neighbours (esp. our dear family members who we are seeing more of that we have in years!). Taking a deep breath and allowing Jesus to hold our hands when we are afraid.
Over the next few weeks our community teams aim to cover the 157 villages we have some work in with basic case detections of recent cough cases - and provide them with a mask and basic medications, prevention education and a follow up to see that they are not worsening. We hope to eventually provide masks for every vulnerable person (elderly, or living with disabilities, or having long-term sicknesses like stroke, sickle-cell disease, cancer, heart problems) in all our villages. And to monitor what the food security is. And to provide compassionate care at Asha Kiran Hospital, and, and, and...
Do say a prayer for us as we seek to live out a life of love. For Sheba and myself and all our amazing colleagues in the Asha Kiran Society and others in the villages. For such a time as this.